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Jeff Eisenberg

Overlooked West Virginia earns a shot at mighty Kentucky

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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On a night that featured an intriguing culture clash, an epic upset and a classic double overtime thriller for the ages, West Virginia's 69-56 victory over Washington also was worthy of a particular label.

It was the other game.

Yes, outside of the Pacific Northwest and the Morgantown-area, West Virginia's strong second half performance was largely overlooked, but the Mountaineers will get their moment in the spotlight against Kentucky in Saturday's East Regional final. And heck, West Virginia might be the team in the field with the best chance of upsetting the Wildcats if the team can defend and rebound the way it did against Washington and somehow find a way to cut back on the turnovers.

The Mountaineers, clearly suffering in the absence of injured point guard Truck Bryant, committed 23 turnovers, 13 of which came in a first half that ended with them trailing 29-27. Part of the problem was that Washington extends its defense and puts pressure on its opponent like few teams in the country, but much of it was also that forwards Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler looked uncomfortable bringing the ball up-court and getting the offense started.

"It was a struggle, I'm not going to lie to you," Butler told reporters after the game. "I hate having to bring the ball up. But first half we came out there, we did a poor job of taking care of the ball."

West Virginia overcame the turnovers in the second half by dominating the offensive glass, grabbing 16 of their ridiculous 23 offensive boards and turning that into 13 of their 17 second-chance points. The Mountaineers also held fast-paced Washington to just 56 points by completely shutting down the Huskies' half-court offense, Ebanks bothering Isaiah Thomas with his length at the top of the 1-3-1 zone and Quincy Pondexter picking up three-first half fouls and never getting on track.

"You could see the frustration and how they were slapping at people instead of playing, guarding the ball," Butler said. "They kind of, I won't say caved but I would say laid down. We just pressed them. We still kept pressing them in the half court with the 1-3-1. Devin did a great job on top of the 1-3-1. It just worked out well for us in the second half."

If West Virginia is going to earn its first Final Four berth in more than five decades and get coach Bob Huggins back for the first time in 18 years, the Mountaineers must beat a Kentucky team that's better than Washington in all facets of the game.

The good news, however, is this. Win that one, and the spotlight will be theirs.

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